I’ve been living with Uncle Reggie and Auntie Sal for about six weeks now and, even though I don’t like it when the windows shake from the bombing in the city or when the wind shifts and I smell gunpowder, I’m not waking up at night as much anymore. Uncle Reggie says that, now that I’m not in North London, I’m safe, and he tells me not to worry about the blackout curtains, either. We just do it, he says, because the ARP warden tells us it’s the law.
Now that I’ve turned eleven, I’m old enough to help out, so this morning I started digging in the field to find stuff that could be melted down and used to blow up Nazis. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but Uncle Reggie says when you’re looking for something important, you’ll find it, sooner or later – usually in the last place you look. Like always, he was right.
Auntie Sal’s wooden spoon hit something hard as I was digging – and, mind you, in the very last place I looked. I dug out a box about as long as one of Uncle Reggie’s hammers, and not very tall, because I could wrap my hand around it, my thumb on the bottom, fingers on top. The box smelt like the worms you dig up to go fishing. Bertie always says that worms dug up on days we’re skiving off school smell best, and that’s exactly how this box smelt.
I brushed off moist dirt and saw the box was wooden and full of worm holes. There was a metal keyhole, though, so maybe that part could be melted to help capture the Nazis. When I shook the box, something inside rattled, probably pirate’s gold. I haven’t met a pirate yet, but Bertie says they have scars on their faces on account of all their sword fights.
I hurried back to the cottage, not even stopping to use the privy by the vegetable garden because Auntie Sal gets cross if anyone is late to breakfast. When I got home, she was standing in the kitchen, hands on her hips, ready to scold me for being late. Instead, she said, “What on earth are you dragging into my nice clean kitchen?”
I tried showing her the box but instead she got mad about the mud falling on the floor and germs all over my hands, so I took the box outside. I washed my hands good, then shoveled down leftover fried mash and some bread from the bin. My eyes watered from all the wood smoke, so I figured we must be out of coal again.
Auntie Sal was still on her knees scrubbing the floor when Bertie strolled inside, whistling. We scarpered off, Bertie and me, walking to school like we always do. I figured Bertie’s Pa must have gotten paid because Bertie’s cowlick was slicked down all nice with lard.
I showed Bertie my box and he thought I’d had a grand adventure. I can always count on Bertie giving me advice – and I usually take it, too, but when he suggested we forget about school to find more treasure chests, I figured I’d better deal with my troubles one at a time. When Auntie Sal noticed her best wooden spoon missing, well, that would be enough trouble for one day.
Bertie, being a real mate, helped me to clean up my box. We both spit on it and he even used the tail of his shirt to wipe our spit off the box. We thought about finding a match and lighting it to look inside the keyhole. But then I remembered what happened that one time Bertie suggested we start a fire and – well, Auntie Sal says it’s best not to discuss that day.
Me and Bertie, we got the box looking pretty clean, but then we were late to school and Miss Alfredson was cross. She even talked about having another meeting with Uncle Reggie and Auntie Sal about my behaviour. The last meeting we had, Auntie Sal was pretty mad at me, but what saved my hide was when she got even madder with Miss Alfredson.
“Reg,” she’d said to Uncle Reggie, “did you see how that woman looked down her nose at me?”
Uncle Reggie asked Auntie Sal if she’d prefer Miss Alfredson would’ve looked up her nose instead of down. I thought that was funny, but Auntie Sal got mad at Uncle Reggie, too. Now, every time Miss Alfredson fusses at me, I picture her trying to look up her own nose, and it makes me smile inside. Point being, the timing didn’t seem too good to show Miss Alfredson the box.
On the way home, I showed my box to the rag and bone man, which made me miss home. Back when I lived in North London with my parents, a nice lady named Viola used to ride along with our neighbourhood’s rag and bone man, collecting iron pots and pans and porch railings for the war effort. She’d sneak me sweets whenever she could find some, and Ma called her the Dust Bin Queen.
I didn’t get to show anyone else my box till I stopped at Uncle’s Reggie’s barn where he fixes farm equipment and motors for people in the village. He’d rather have been a pilot but his gimp leg made the army tell him no.
“What’s up, Harry? What’ve you found?”
“A box, maybe full of pirate gold,” I said, handing him my treasure.
He inspected it carefully, his hands stained with grease. “Would you like me to open the box?”
I wasn’t sure and Uncle Reggie didn’t push me. He went back to work, checking his pocket watch every ten minutes or so. Auntie Sal doesn’t like anyone to be late for tea. I used to wonder why it was so danged important, but one day Uncle Reggie explained it to me.
“Harry,” he said, “Sal has gotten mighty particular once the war started. She didn’t used to fuss if someone tracked mud on her floors, but keeping her house in order gives her a sense of control nowadays.”
That didn’t make much sense to me, but I figured Uncle Reggie knew what he was talking about. Then he talked about something even stranger. “I remember one day,” he said, getting a funny look in his eyes, like when he breathes in too many gasoline fumes, “when I came back to the cottage earlier than usual. Sal’s hair was hanging loose on her shoulders and she was dancing to the radio. She wasn’t even wearing any shoes. Oh, she was so lost in her dancing.”
I later asked Bertie what that story meant. He says maybe Auntie Sal lost the ribbon that ties up her hair and was spinning around the room, looking for it. He’s probably right. She probably didn’t find it, either, not until she looked in that very last place, just like me and my box. And now I had a lot of decisions to make, with time running short. Uncle Reggie had already looked at his pocket watch about four times, which meant tea time was getting close.
He put down his spanner. “Yeah, Harry?”
“Let’s say this box really is full of gold.”
Uncle Reggie nodded. “That’s a good place to start, I agree.”
“If it is, there still won’t be enough money to end the war, right?”
“No. I expect not.”
“And it wouldn’t mean the bomb that hit Ma and Pa’s flat wasn’t real.”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
So, I wondered, as I washed my hands for tea, I wondered a lot. This box seemed valuable, so I’d need to guard it close. Uncle Reggie says we can get a dog, one that lives in the barn, after the war ends. But how would I keep my box safe till then? How could I go to school and dig in the field like Uncle Reggie asked? Who would watch the gold while I was busy doing all that? Just thinking about it made my head hurt so much that Auntie Sal put the back of her hand on my forehead to see if I was feverish. Her hand felt cool.
Thing is, my life is pretty good, just the way it is. I have the best mate anybody could ever want, with Bertie sticking with me through thick and thin, plus the fishing hole is close – and I have my own pole. Someday we’ll get that barn dog, and I’ll be allowed to name him. Uncle Reggie teaches me how to fix what’s broken – and, even though Auntie Sal says, “Oh, God, give me strength!” an awfully lot when I’m around, she also cut up her best dress when my britches needed patched on the bum.
So, what good would pirate gold do me, anyhow? What could it give me that I didn’t already have?
The next morning, I got up at dawn and buried the box in a special place, a place nobody knows about but me.
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Here for the critique circle. I like your exposition, how it doesn't take away from the story by telling the reader too much. I love the lead-up to what's inside the box, and then the falling action of not opening it. Something I would say is that you don't need a ton of backstory to make this a meaningful story. It is a relief to not have to read a novel's worth of backstory here, but you don't even need very much of what you do include. The reader doesn't have to know Harry's parents died, you could make it vague or never address it. It ...
Thanks for the feedback!